Coakley suggests three-way debates

Says all candidates on ballot should participate

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / December 12, 2009

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LYNN - US Senate candidate Martha Coakley is suggesting that she will not agree to debates unless long-shot candidate Joseph L. Kennedy is involved, a strategy that appears to be an effort to make the Senate race a three-party run.

“I think it’s very important at this stage in the game that everybody on the ballot be involved in these debates,’’ she said yesterday afternoon following a campaign appearance. “The campaigns are in the process of talking about that now, but there are three candidates, and everybody who’s going to cast a ballot on Jan. 19 should know that.’’

On Tuesday, Coakley won the Democratic nomination, and state Senator Scott Brown won the Republican nomination.

Kennedy, who is not related to the famed political family, is a Libertarian who launched an independent bid for US Senate. He is the only candidate not in a major party who turned in the 10,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot.

Coakley said requests have been made for eight debates, and her campaign is going through them now. When asked if she would refuse to debate unless Kennedy were included, she said, “We haven’t gotten to that yet.’’

“I’m a Democrat, we live in a democracy, and this is one of the treasures that we have,’’ she said. “If people can get the votes and get the support, they’re allowed to get their message out to voters . . . . He has done what Massachusetts says he needs to to be on the ballot here. In that sense, he puts himself out as a candidate.’’

Kennedy could not agree more. “I have a different point of view,’’ he said in a phone interview last night. “It’s almost an antithesis. Not to include me would be to limit voters’ knowledge of what all the candidates stand for.’’

Brown’s campaign pointed out that Coakley declined to debate her Republican opponent, Cambridge lawyer Larry Frisoli, when she was running for attorney general in 2006.

“Until he says something that’s true or worth debating, I’m not going to waste my time,’’ Coakley told the Globe at the time.

“She refused to debate her opponent because he had criticized her and because she didn’t think he was a serious candidate,’’ said Felix Browne, a spokesman for Brown’s campaign. “We are reviewing debate invitations as they come in, and we will work out the formats at the appropriate time.’’

Having a three-way debate would help Coakley, the front-runner in the race, and would make it harder for Brown to clearly differentiate himself from Coakley. As a libertarian, Kennedy is also more likely to pull votes from Brown than he is from Coakley, so giving him broad exposure on a televised debate could hurt Brown’s chances.

“It might divide up the anybody-but-Martha vote,’’ said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Scott Brown would like to have Martha one-on-one, to make it very clear that he’s the alternative to Martha Coakley.’’

Kennedy would probably have the same campaign message as Brown, as an independent voice in Washington.

Independent candidates have thrown a wrench in traditional politicians’ plans for decades, and whether to include them in debates is a perennial issue for news organizations and the candidates themselves to sort out.

During the 2006 gubernatorial race, for example, Christy Mihos left the Republican Party to run as an independent. His presence and his off-the-cuff humor made it much more difficult for the Republican candidate, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, to gain traction against the Democratic frontrunner, Deval Patrick.

Meanwhile, Coakley, in her first solo campaign event since winning the Democratic nomination, went to Lynn to tour a health center, where she spoke about the need for a national health care overhaul.

“There are two other candidates who are running,’’ she said. “I believe I’m the only candidate now who . . . supports coverage of everybody and reducing our costs through health care reform.’’

Brown, who yesterday began a series of “kitchen table conversations’’ by dropping by a home in Harvard, Mass., to discuss the economy and taxes, opposes the creation of a government-run health insurance option as part of a an overhaul. Coakley supports the plan outlined this week by US Senate majority leader Harry Reid, even though it does not include the kind of robust public option she and other Democrats have said they want.

She also called Brown’s request that she sign a no-tax pledge a political gimmick and said the nation’s economy “is not resolved by saying no.’’

“I would remind everybody that we are in this economic mess primarily because we’ve had a Bush-Cheney administration for eight years that wouldn’t regulate Wall Street,’’ she said.

On Wednesday, Brown signed a pledge from the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform that he would not raise taxes and challenged Coakley to do the same. Yesterday, he was endorsed by Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Several news organizations have been planning for debates. WCVB has invited the candidates to a 10 a.m. debate on Jan. 10 that would be simulcast locally on WCVB and nationally on CNN. It would be moderated by WCVB anchor Ed Harding and CNN’s John King.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate has invited the candidates to debate on Jan. 11. The debate would be moderated by former presidential adviser David Gergen. The Globe is part of a consortium with NECN, WGBH, and WBUR that invited the candidates to debate on Jan. 6.

Kennedy has not been invited to those debates, he said, and the only one so far that he is involved in is being sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Kennedy, a 38-year-old computer technician from Dedham, is running on a platform of increasing civil liberties and reducing taxes. He wants to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, supports same-sex marriage, and is in favor of making changes “that make sense’’ in health care policies.

Eric Moskowitz of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at